What to do to solve your dog's separation anxiety

Separation anxiety in dogs
Learn about dogs

A dog’s love is unconditional, they’ll never get bored of your company and they’ll always be overjoyed to see you walk through the door whether that’s after a long day at work, or a quick trip to the shop…

It’s a lovely feeling knowing that you’re always going to be greeted by an ecstatic dog who will be keen to inundate you with cuddles and slobbery kisses, which we’re sure you’ll be more than happy to return. But at what point does this go too far?

Separation anxiety is the negative behaviour your dog exhibits when you’re not there, and it’s a very serious condition that causes your dog a lot of distress, so it needs to be tackled. We’re going to clue you up on everything you need to know about separation anxiety, what exactly it is, why it happens and how to treat the issue so your dog can begin to relax when they’re home alone.

Defining separation anxiety in dogs

Getting a new puppy takes a lot of work, and you’ll no doubt be bombarded with tips and information from other dog owners, your research online and even just from people walking down the streets wanting to give you some tips. Separation anxiety is a phrase you’ve probably heard floating around the canine world, it’s something that dog owners warn other owners about, but it could do with some proper clarification as it can easily get a little mixed up.

Separation anxiety

Just like humans, dogs can feel anxiety in all different ways and for all different reasons, separation anxiety is just one specific type.

Separation anxiety is essentially when a dog gets incredibly attached to one person, and when they’re not with that person, the dog becomes wound up, agitated and displays several undesirable behaviours until they’re reunited with that individual. Around 22-55% of the general dog population are believed to show some signs of separation-related problem behaviours, but some will be much more severe than others.

Solving your dog's separation anxiety

This anxiety disorder is not just a dog who is incredibly clingy, follows you around like a shadow and gets slightly distressed when you leave but quickly chills out within minutes. Separation anxiety is better characterised by a dog who destroys the house, howls and barks enough to irritate the whole street and maybe even a dog who injures themselves trying to escape to go and find that one person they’ve gained such an intense bond with.

Isolation distress

Separation anxiety can be easily confused with another anxiety disorder, isolation distress. The ways in which the two manifest are the exact same, but isolation distress refers to a dog who panics when they’re totally alone in the house, but they’d be perfectly content if they’ve got someone else with them, even if they’ve never met that person before.

Sometimes even another pup pal will do just the trick to resolve isolation distress. It’s just the concept of being totally alone that causes them to panic, whereas, separation anxiety is the panic when their central person has left them, the other people that are there make no difference to their stress.

Containment phobia

Another common anxiety disorder is containment phobia, which again can be confused with separation anxiety or isolation distress. Containment phobia is when the dog can’t physically deal with being in a confined space, whether that be a crate or a room with the door closed. It’s similar to how people experience claustrophobia.

This disorder will present itself with your dog trying to destroy the threshold that’s keeping them contained so they can try and make a desperate escape, bloodying their paws by digging at the door, chewing their crate or biting at the skirting boards. Separation anxiety can also look like this, which is why they can be easily confused.

Boredom

To be honest, some dogs may feel sad when they’re left home alone, whereas some might think, right, now’s the time to get up to all the stuff I’m not allowed to do when my owners are here! Consequently, they’ll get straight into chewing cushions, blankets, sofas, skirting boards and even the wall. If your dog isn’t getting enough stimulation in the day, they’ll have a lot of pent-up energy that needs releasing, and unfortunately, that energy will be relinquished on your lovely home.

Now any mix ups have been cleared up, we can get onto the nitty gritty of figuring out how to spot and solve separation anxiety.

What causes some dogs to develop separation anxiety?

There isn’t one conclusive reason as to why some dogs suffer with separation anxiety and why others don’t, but there are a couple of theories. Dogs are naturally sociable creatures, most thriving from human contact, which explains their elation when you walk through the door. Other than mealtimes and walkies, you returning home from work is probably the most exciting time of the day.

When you’re not there, it’s a primal response to panic and stress due to their historical ancestry with wolves, who were naturally pack animals. Several dogs feel severely panicked when a member of their family is missing, they feel like a member of their pack has gotten lost and it can consequently make the dog feel lost themselves, even though they’re perfectly safe in their own home.

Loss

The source of the separation anxiety is often believed to triggered from the loss of someone or something. Losing an important family member, another dog in the household passing away, or even moving house are all enormous changes for a dog to go through that could spark this fear around something else changing in their everyday lives.

Separation anxiety commonly develops in shelter and stray dogs as they’ve already experienced a loss in their lives or felt some kind of loneliness, so being left alone may trigger the panic that this could happen once again.

A 2015 study details how early life experiences and other environmental impacts influence separation anxiety. It states how pups that were separated at the wrong time from both their mother and littermates are likely to develop anxious tendencies. The study also researched into whether exercise impacts separation anxiety.

It was found that dogs who received less daily exercise were more likely to show separation-related behaviours. However, this is tenuous because it isn’t differentiated between if this is generally just boredom and the dog needing more stimulation or actual separation anxiety. This is why the term of separation anxiety is thrown around so loosely.

Routine

Dogs are creatures of habit, they love a routine and any change to this routine can put them on edge. Has your dog ever started getting agitated and wound up when dinnertime is approaching? It’s because they know at certain times of the day, certain things happen, and if it doesn’t go the way it normally does then they’ll feel like it’s the end of the world.

If you’ve had a change of schedule, most likely one that impacts the timings when your dog is usually left alone, it can trigger the development of separation anxiety. A routine change that frequently causes this is when an owner was once working from home, and something has changed where they now need to leave the house for work. Unsurprisingly, the dog will be very confused as to why their human is no longer able to chill with them on the daily.

What to do to stop dog's separation anxiety

Owners

Sometimes, the anxious tendencies can be unintentionally emphasised by owners. If you begin to pick up your keys or put your shoes on ready to leave the house, your dog might start getting stressed out, pre-empting your departure. Whimpering, whining, pacing and howling are behaviours that will tug on your heartstrings, it makes you feel guilty to leave your dog alone in the house.

However, if you rush to your dog’s side to comfort them with strokes, cuddles and reassuring words when they’re whining for you, it can just reinforce to your dog that this is the correct behaviour for them to display. It’s a type of positive reinforcement.

What are the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs?

Dogs with separation anxiety will only really show these specific undesirable behaviours when you’re not there.

A study showed that the most common signs of separation anxiety were destruction of the home, occurring in 71% of dogs studied. After this, the most common signs were excessive vocalisation (barking and howling), occurring in 61% of dogs studied and having toilet accidents in the house despite being fully housetrained, occurring in 28% of dogs studied.

Why does my dog have separation anxiety

Here’s a full list of all the signs of separation anxiety:

  • Destroying the furniture, doors, windowsills, skirting boards and anything else in their path. This can result in several injuries, bloody paws, broken teeth, broken nails and one damaged house!
  • Barking
  • Howling
  • Toilet accidents
  • Coprophagia (eating their own faeces)
  • Escape attempts
  • Digging
  • Drooling
  • Pacing – some may walk in circles, some may pace back and forth
  • Pica (eating non-food items such as grass, soil, sticks, rubbish, rocks, socks)
  • Depression
  • Trying to prevent you from leaving the house by blocking doorways, barking, howling or whining at you
  • Extremely excited when you return home, acting as if you’ve left them for years and years when if it’s only been half an hour

Some of these behaviours, such as pacing, drooling, barking and howling won’t be as obvious to you, as you won’t have been there to witness it and there’ll be no evidence of the behaviour when you return, unlike destructive behaviours to the house. Unless you’re met with a really angry neighbour who has reached the end of their tether with the noisy, nonstop barking, or you’re welcomed home to a puddle of drool on the floor.

If you suspect that your dog is feeling distressed when you’re not there, possibly due to what you’re witnessing right before you leave and when you return, it might be worth setting up a camera before you go. Filming your dog’s reactions to being left alone can give you an insight into what they get up to when you’re not there, and it might give you a bit of a shock if you weren’t aware of the level of distress your dog experiences.

What is separation anxiety in dogs

Separation anxiety is much more than your dog being a little poorly behaved when you’re out of the house, it’s a severe condition that needs addressing. Even though the chewed-up furniture, dug up carpets and constant toilet accidents will be incredibly irritating for you, especially if your dog is an angel when you’re at home with them, it’s a sign that your dog is distressed and suffers immensely when you’re not there. Try not to blame them too much.

Can separation anxiety in dogs be treated?

Separation anxiety is a disorder that can be resolved, but it’s a lengthy process that won’t be cured overnight. Treating the issue will take lots of work from both you and your dog, your pup won’t just decide one day that panicking over you leaving is irritational and not worth the stress. Several months of practice, perseverance and patience will be what it takes to combat the anxiety.

Calming supplements are sometimes recommended to encourage your dog to relax when they’re alone, but the most effective method of solving the problem is a thorough behavioural modification regime that will teach your dog to tolerate being home alone.

The behaviour modification programme will differ depending on the severity of your dog’s anxiety and how it presents itself. We’re going to give you a brief overview of common behavioural modification methods that are recommended, but a one size fits all approach won’t work with all dogs.

Your dog is likely to never enjoy being alone, but if they can learn to cope, relax and not panic when you’re gone, you’ll end up with a much happier and more content dog overall. At the end of the day, the intense stress they feel when you’re gone will not be healthy for them.

Important tips and tricks before you start training

  • Solving separation anxiety is a stressful form of training, so it’s key to know your dog’s limits and not push them too far, after all, you’re trying to completely change how they’ve behaved for a long time in a certain situation.
  • You need to establish how severe the separation anxiety is to work out what route of behavioural modification is suitable. This can be done by filming how your dog reacts when they’re left alone.
  • Never punish your dog for being destructive or having a toilet accident in the house. They won’t be able to link their previous behaviour to the punishment, and it’ll only emphasise the feeling of fear. It may even encourage coprophagia (eating faeces) as they’ll want to hide their accident in case they get punished.
  • As stated, dogs are creatures of habit. You must work on their training at many different times of the day, if you always train them in the morning, but never on an evening, they might not realise that the same training principles still apply in the evening.
  • If multiple people live in your house, make sure everyone is partaking in the training. Even though the dog may only feel the anxiety towards one person leaving, the dog must still understand that the same things apply when any person in the household leaves.
  • Make sure all departures and returns are kept calm and low key. Your dog needs to understand that you leaving and returning is not a big deal that requires a big fuss. Maybe try a distraction when you walk through the door, tell your dog to sit, paw or any other simple command they know to decrease excitement levels and distract them from what is actually happening.

Helping a mild case of separation anxiety

If you consider your dog’s anxiety towards you leaving to be relatively mild, you can help resolve the disorder with counterconditioning. This is a treatment process that functions to completely change the negative feelings your dog has about a person, dog, place, situation or noise by associating it with something really good.

Essentially, you want your dog’s frightened, nervous or aggressive reaction to being left alone to change into a content, relaxed and pleasant response instead. If your dog starts to realise that every time you leave they get something they really love at the same time (like a high-value treat), they’ll eventually learn that the thing they once dreaded that got them agitated and anxious actually can bring them things they love too.

Counterconditioning

To start creating that link between being left alone and positive things, you need to start providing your dog with something they love every time you leave the house. For instance, get a puzzle toy such as a lickimat or Kong packed with Pure and leave it with them in their bed. Their daily meal allowance can even be given totally in these toys! Leave the room but stay in the house and return shortly after. You’ll be able to build up the duration they’re alone for over time.

Providing your pet with a food-filled puzzle not only gives them a delicious snack that’ll get them excited, but it’s also a mental enrichment activity to keep their minds whirring and hopefully forget about the fact they’d normally be panicking at this point. Several puzzle toys can even be frozen, meaning they last a lot longer. Chewing, biting and licking is a soothing act for dogs, encouraging relaxation.

How to stop dog's separation anxiety

You must remove these special toys when you return home and only give them to your dog when they’re going to be left alone. If they’re left out on the floor 24/7, they’ll cease to be high value.

Even though this method can be really effective to combat the anxiety disorder, some issues with it need to be highlighted. It really will only work with dogs that have a slight case of separation anxiety because dogs that are incredibly anxious will be too stressed out to even think about eating food when their person is away.

Another issue arises when our clever canines start to clock on to what you’re doing. If your dog starts to associate the high value toy with you leaving, the panic of that may override the excitement they initially felt when they were receiving the puzzle toy filled with food.

Helping a moderate to severe case of separation anxiety

In cases where the dog suffers more extremely with their separation anxiety, a much more complex behavioural modification regime will need to be conducted. This is really tricky to complete as the treatment method needs to develop and adjust in accordance to how your dog is responding to treatment.

To make things harder, your dog’s reactions can be pretty confusing to interpret and if your dog ends up feeling fearful, the process can regress massively. Therefore, it’s strongly advised to conduct this training with a qualified behaviourist.

Severe cases of separation anxiety can be solved with a very gradual, complicated desensitisation process alongside counterconditioning. Desensitisation is where you slowly expose your dog to a stimulus that on an ordinary day would elicit a negative reaction (fear, stress, aggression) at a level that is that low your dog has absolutely no reaction. These exposure levels must be built up over a long period of time until your dog can experience the initial stimuli at its normal level without batting an eyelid.

To apply this to your dog’s separation anxiety, you need to slowly accustom your pet to time spent apart from you by beginning with miniscule separations that don’t create any anxiety whatsoever and then slowly increasing the separations. Therefore, it’s important to determine your dog’s limits to being left alone so you can start your training at a level they can tolerate.

We’re going to talk through a step-by-step guide on how to start this process, but again, getting help from a trained behaviourist is recommended.

Step-by-step guide for desensitisation

Starting from scratch

This could be one of the hardest parts of the process and is only really necessary if the anxiety is incredibly severe. To solve the separation anxiety, you need to ensure that your dog can never experience that intense feeling of anxiety in the first place.

Essentially, your dog can never be left alone. For desensitisation to work, the most fundamental part of the process is that your dog doesn’t have to encounter the total version of their fear until the process is complete. It’s a daunting idea, but you ideally need to establish some sort of constant for your dog, such as doggy daycare or bringing your dog into work with you, but this is easier said than done. It’s simply not an option for everyone.

Also, if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety over one specific person, rather than isolation distress, they’ll still feel the same type of agitation because their person isn’t there. This won’t be a viable option for everyone, so it just means that the rest of the desensitisation process will take a lot longer.

Leaving clues

Establish what your dog’s threshold is for being left alone, if you know they can handle half an hour of alone time before getting anxious, start from there. However, dogs can start getting anxious before you even leave the house, and this is where you need to start.

Sometimes we can underestimate how clever our canine friends are, have you noticed that your dog starts getting anxious before you even leave the house? It’s because they’ve picked up on your predeparture cues and they know that the worst is about to happen.

You’ve put your coat and shoes on, you’ve picked up your bag and your car keys are jingling, they know that they’re going to be left alone. Consequently, they start pacing, whining, barking and blocking the door, anything they can do to try and stop you from leaving.

What does separation anxiety in dogs look like

To approach this situation, you need to start changing what these predeparture cues mean. Practice just picking up your keys and walking to another room and putting them back down. Put on your coat and shoes and go make yourself a brew. Open the door, close it again. Basically, you just need to change what the significance of these little cues indicates to your dog, so they know that if you pick up your car keys, it won’t always lead to them being left alone.

It can be tricky if you’ve been in the same routine for several years, as the significance of these cues will be entrenched into their brain. Practice, practice, practice is key here. Don’t move on to the next stage until your dog no longer gets worked up when you put your coat on.

Keep it short and sweet

Once you’ve managed to change your dog’s feelings towards the dreaded jingling of the car keys it’s time to start with very short separation. We truly do mean very short, you won’t even be leaving the house!

To begin, you need to get your dog to sit and stay outside of a door in your house where they can’t see you. For example, go into the bathroom out of your dog’s line of sight and instruct them to wait there patiently. The trick is to ensure your separation will be that short they don’t even have time to get anxious.

Helping my dog's separation anxiety

Over time you can increase the length of time that you’re behind the bathroom door. You can even start to combine this with the previous step by picking up your coat, keys and getting your shoes on and then going into the bathroom.

Moving to the exit

Don’t move on to this stage until your dog isn’t anxious while you’re behind the bathroom door, you can’t push this type of training to go quickly, your dog is going to need a lot of time. This step is exactly the same as the previous step, you just need to change the bathroom door to the exit door. Using the back door might be good to begin with if your dog is used to you leaving through the front.

Hopefully, your four-legged friend won’t feel any anxiety when you do this exercise at the exit door, as they’ll be completely used to playing this strange ‘stay’ game.

Longer absences

Now it’s time to increase the length of time that you’re behind the exit door for. Well, it might not seem like a longer absence, around 5-10 seconds of separation. You can gradually increase the time from here (and we do mean really gradually!) You can also start to slot in the counterconditioning here by giving your dog a food-filled toy before you step out of the door.

Don’t push your dog too far here, make sure you wait a fair bit of time before you start your next practice session. You need to confirm that your dog is in a totally relaxed state before you try practicing again. If you’ve just walked back through the door after a little 10 second training session, your dog will be giddy to see you and if you try training again immediately after, they’ll still be in a high state of arousal that could turn into anxiety.

When you’re coming back in through the exit door, be calm, don’t shower your dog with praise, cuddles and kisses if they were good, no matter how tempting it is. It’ll make your return home way too big of a deal, you want your dog to realise there isn’t much difference between you being there and you not being there.

Slow and steady wins the race

Every single dog is different, so we can’t really provide an estimate on how long this process will take. This means it’s really difficult to judge at what point you can increase your absences without your dog having a meltdown. This is where many setbacks happen and owners accidentally expose their dog to too much separation that can actually worsen the initial problem.

Over several weeks your sessions will increase gradually. As stated, this will only be by a few seconds at first, but you’ll eventually be able to reach about 30 minutes of separation. It might be handy to set up a camera here. The time can then start to increase by larger increments, 5 minutes each time. Once the 90-minute mark is reached (again, don’t rush to this level), your dog might be able to manage a few hours. Be very careful though.

Dogs thrive on structure and routine in their lives. At the end of this steady process, you want your dog to be able to understand that their days are split into two separate sections, one where they’ve got social interaction and one where there’s no interaction. This will stop their mind from worrying about you, they’ll know that this alone time is just a general part of their daily routine.

Should I crate train my dog?

There isn’t a definitive answer here when it comes to crate training. When you first bring a puppy home, training them that their crate is a positive place to rest and go to when they want some alone time is great.

However, if you’re looking to use a crate alone to stop the separation anxiety, this won’t work. You might think that a dog who chews up cushion covers when they’re alone won’t be able to do any of this in a crate, but the truth is, they’ll find some other way to be destructive which will probably mean they cause harm to themselves.

Dogs with containment phobia will not do well in a crate and it will just do more harm than good, causing further stress. Although, it can work really well if the crate training is incorporated steadily into the counterconditioning and desensitisation training. You need to judge for yourself if you think it’d be beneficial for your dog.

Will getting another dog help with my dog’s separation anxiety?

If you’ve been worrying about your dog’s separation anxiety, many people might suggest getting your dog another four-legged friend to keep them company while you’re gone. Although this might help in some cases, especially for dogs suffering more from isolation distress over separation anxiety, there’s no promise that your troubles will be gone. You should only get a second dog if you want a second dog, not to help your current dog.

Can I prevent my dog from developing separation anxiety?

There’s no sure-fire way to prevent your dog from developing separation anxiety, however, if you’ve got a new puppy, the earlier you start practising your separations the better. Otherwise, they might become severely distressed when they’re left alone for the first time.

Understandably, this can be quite hard to do if you’re home all the time, such as if you work from home. It’s a good idea to pretend you’ve gone out. Confine your pup in their safe space and go work in a different room for a little while, just make sure you’re super quiet! You need to make sure your puppy understands that their routine on a regular day consists of eating, playing, sleeping, social interaction and also some alone time.

Try and give your dog a lot of exercise and mental stimulation before going out to hopefully encourage them to relax and relish in this time alone, as it means they get to sleep in peace and quiet. If it’s possible, take your dog for a long walk before you go to work.

Some dogs that rip up your pillows and blankets might not even have separation anxiety, they might just be going a bit ‘stir-crazy’. Without the proper physical and mental activity to tire them out, dogs can simply just get bored on their own, feeling that the only way to fill their time is to ruin your living room.

Recap

Separation anxiety is difficult, and it can be really frustrating coming home to a house that’s been ransacked. You must try and understand that it’s not your dog’s fault, they’re genuinely experiencing severe distress, fear and anxiety.

Addressing the issue head on with an intense behavioural modification programme is the best way to approach the anxiety and hopefully help you and your dog not to fear the times when you leave.

Sources
  1. Separation anxiety in dogs: What progress has been made in our understanding of the most common behavioral problems in dogs? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 16, Dec 2016, 28-35, doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.02.005
  2. The efficacy of systematic desensitisation for treating the separation-related problem behaviour of domestic dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 129, (2-4), Jan 2011, 136-145, doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.11.001
  3. Risk factors and behaviours associated with separation anxiety in dogs Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219, (4), Sept 2001, 460-466, doi:10.2460/javma.2001.219.460
  4. Prevalence, comorbidity, and behavioural variation in canine anxiety Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 16, Dec 2016, 36-44, doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.008
  5. Early life experiences and exercise associate with canine anxieties PLOS One, 10, (11), Nov 2015, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141907
  6. Developing diagnostic frameworks in veterinary behavioural medicine: Disambiguating separation related behaviour in dogs Veterinary Science, 12, Jan 2020, doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2019.00499
  7. https://www.dovepress.com/canine-separation-anxiety-strategies-for-treatment-and-management-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-VMRR#ref14 https://www.dovepress.com/canine-separation-anxiety-strategies-for-treatment-and-management-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-VMRR#ref14

Related Articles